Three Outfits for the Teacher Boy from Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House
During Christmas Break I, along with two dear, marvelous, mythological kitties, convened a book club concentrated around girls. We read a remarkable amount of literature by ladies. The non-boy authors included Marisa Meltzer’s review of sass in the relatively recent music business, Caitlin Flanagan’s charmingly 50s housewife advice on how to treat your daughter, and the Great Plains gal Willa Cather. The last of these non-boys caused the sharpest reactions amongst the book club members. Willa’s exacting, singular, and peculiar worlds wound up the kitties to such an extent that they cried, moaned, groaned, and dispensed caca in places where politer creatures wouldn’t dare dispense caca.
I, too, was enchanted by Willa; especially Professor Godfrey St. Peter, the teacher boy in The Professor’s House. Unlike most feminists and nearly all LGBTQ’s, St. Peter isn’t thirsting to earn entrance into un-movielike white America. St. Peter pulsates with literature. He composed an eight-volume study on Spanish Adventurers. Insight is the sole currency that concerns the professor. When Oxford awards him a prize of five thousand pounds St. Peter informs his wife, “If with that cheque I could have brought back the fun I had writing my history, you’d never have got your house. But one couldn’t get that for twenty thousand dollars. The great pleasures don’t come so cheap.” A new crib is zilch compared to learning, and, obviously, one should collect knowledge in wonderful clothes, which is primarily why I shall now take up the task of dressing St. Peter.
It takes St. Peter fifteen years to complete his eight-volume study. The “centre of his operations” is a tiny room that he shares with his sewing woman. The walls and ceiling are covered with “a yellow paper which had once been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality.” The matting on the floor is “worn and scratchy.” According to Willa, St. Peter’s HQ is “the most inconvenient study a man could possibly have.” But just like the Red Army, the mid-20th century German boys, and Emily Bronte, St. Peter thrives in ghastly surroundings. St. Peter is an angel, and angels needs wings, of course.
St. Peter has two delightful daughters. One of them, Rosie, inherits bundles of dead presidents due to a patent that a genius beau leaves her. The other, Kitty, is tough and resolute. When little, a bee sting turns Kitty’s fingers into “little pink sausages.” But Kitty waits to inform her daddy of this dilemma because she doesn’t wish to interrupt his work. The two daughters are in conflict. Kitty doesn’t care for the conspicuous ways in which Rosie and her snide husband spend their money. Rosie patronizes the less wealthy Kitty and treats her like a charity case. War between these two girls could commence at any moment. St. Peter must be prepared. A part of the world that’s always ready for combat is the Middle East. This Nicholas K ensemble is quite Middle East: The browns are the browns of desert sands and the headscarf could very well be a turban. With this outfit, St. Peter alerts his daughters that he isn’t the least bit queasy about involving himself in a battle.
St. Peter’s study possesses components more harrowing than tacky wallpaper and downtrodden floors: it contains an odious stove. St. Peter’s source of heat “consumes gas imperfectly.” If a window isn’t left open the air becomes “contaminated” and all the room’s occupants will die. Near the very end of the story (PLEASE DISCONTINUE READING IMMEDIATELY IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE COGNIZANT OF THE ENDING) a storm slams the window shut. The professor passes out. When he comes to he finds himself on the floor and asks: “How far was a man required to exert himself against accident?” He hadn’t lifted his hand against himself – was he required to lift it for himself?” The professor is on the cusp of heaven, so he must sport this black tulle dress, for heaven is serious and very delicate.